Higher education in crisis?

The forced resignation of Edmund Terence Gomez from Malaysia’s most prestigious university, Universiti Malaya, illustrates a continued decay in the standards and practices of higher education.

Despite the impressive investment in education through the 1990s, professional standards have dropped to a level that respected scholars and quality teachers are being pushed out of the system. This trend is especially evident in the social sciences. The end result is that a generation of younger scholars, students and ultimately society at large are losing out.

Gomez’s work is both pioneering and of the highest quality. As a meticulous scholar Gomez examines the complex relationship between business and politics, race relations and regional political economy, writing path breaking books and articles that have changed the understanding of Malaysia. His role in the classroom as an educator committed to his country and role model to fellow scholars is less known, but equally important in deepening an intellectual community. His resignation significantly damages the perception of Malaysia’s public universities abroad.

Gomez’s resignation is part of a broader developing pattern within public universities in Malaysia observed from afar. Academic freedom, a cornerstone of democratic governance and necessary conduit for knowledge, has worrisomely contracted. Independent scholars like Gomez have less space to contribute to knowledge, less support to conduct research that deepens understanding of the problems facing developing countries, whether it is political openness or economic competitiveness.

At the same time, academic standards have dropped as political loyalty is rewarded over publications and job performance. Promotions appear to be based on personal relationships and political affiliations rather than on professionalism. Leadership positions within universities have become venues to fawn over politicians rather than to educate.

Exit, the prevalent choice

Scholars with impressive publication records are leaving the universities en masse, not just Gomez and K S Jomo. Most are leaving quietly, entering the private sector, NGO community or moving abroad. Many are non-Malays, who unfortunately have not been made to feel welcome within the contemporary Malaysian university environment, which is seen to favor the Malay community over others. To paraphrase Albert Hirschman’s famous work, exit has become a more prevalent choice, as voice and loyalty have become less palatable options.

Malaysian students are losing the most. Since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Malaysian students have opted in greater numbers for education at home, packing public universities’ classrooms.

Yet, the high quality of education has not been maintained, as large classes have forced lecturers to have less interaction with students, grading is seen to lack standardisation, (with even calls of ethnic bias over merit performance), and dedicated teachers have been demoralised by university mismanagement. Thousands of public university graduates are now unemployed, lacking the skills and necessary foundation to operate in the work place. Malaysia no longer offers a consistent level of skilled labor, and is losing the competitive education game.

The university environment is suffering as well, creating an unconducive atmosphere especially for younger scholars. Personal infighting and petty squabbling are prominent in universities worldwide, but the political overtones of university battles and loss in professionalism has soured relationships, negatively affecting collegiality and ultimately breaking down communication among scholars of different perspectives. Morale in public universities, especially among scholars who publish, is dropping.

Patterns, however, can be reversed with leadership and effective intervention. The Abdullah administration has promised reform in higher education and created a cabinet portfolio to deal specifically with the challenge of human capital development.

The early signals of the administration were promising, pointing to a real commitment to the country’s youth, who now make up over a third of the population. It is now time for the premier to act and to act decisively.